Asheville’s continuing drought is costing us more than just the privilege of watering our lawns: The Water Authority needs $160,000 to buy water from Hendersonville, Asheville Water Resources Director Tom Frederick told City Council members during their Feb. 2 work session.
That’s in addition to $174,750 worth of other drought-related expenses: buying extra chemicals to treat the water remaining in the North Fork and Bee Tree reservoirs; advertising and running a public-education campaign; overtime pay for water-maintenance and treatment-plant staff dealing with the crisis; hiring consultants to help find solutions; passing out a record number of conservation kits; and other related operating expenses through the end of February, Frederick added.
All but the cost of buying Hendersonville water can be paid for through departmental cutbacks — such as freezing current staff vacancies and postponing equipment, building and watershed-road repairs, he indicated. “Without that [$160,000] appropriation, we can’t continue to purchase water,” Frederick stated.
Council member Chuck Cloninger asked where the $160,000 would come from.
City Manager Jim Westbrook helped Frederick explain that — while the funds are expected to be recouped through a surcharge added to the bills of customers whose water use exceeds 80 percent of their pre-drought consumption — in the meantime, the money may have to come out of the city’s fund balance.
Council member Tommy Sellers asked if there was any way to recapture the water used for flushing the lines. “The general public sees this water going down the storm drain,” he remarked.
Frederick replied that the only flushing being done now is to check the levels of chemicals that keep bacteria from growing in the lines, in order to protect public health. It would be difficult to recapture that water, but it will be considered, he said.
Council members also asked about the new Mills River Water Treatment Plant, which was supposed to be completed by Jan. 6 and is six months behind schedule. The plant will supply about 5 million gallons per day to the water system.
“Why don’t [the contractors] pay for the water while we wait?” asked Council member Earl Cobb.
Frederick assured Council that the Water Authority will consider assessing penalties on the two contractors building the new plant — Metric Construction of Charlotte and Hayes and Lunsford of Asheville — but not until the plant is up and running.
He also cautioned, “Although the public has seen it rain … without additional rain, we’re not going to recover.” To restore water levels enough to make it through the coming summer, the North Fork and Bee Tree reservoirs need to receive an average of two days’ water supply — about 40 million gallons — every day through March, he said. That’s the kind of flow the reservoirs got after the Jan. 23 “rain event,” as Frederick termed it.
“Our actual flow [since then] is still below what’s needed,” he explained.
After a brief discussion, Council members agreed to approve the $160,000 appropriation, and directed Westbrook to list it as part of the Feb. 9 consent agenda.